Math and Grammar
A coworker is currently preparing to take the GRE, and today she complimented my use of semicolons in a serial list. Apparently, the comma’s stronger cousin has been a topic of study for her recently. I told her that if she really wanted to brush up on her grammar, she ought to review the debate over the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is the comma used immediately before and, or, and sometimes nor preceding the final item in a list of three or more items.
I always use the Oxford comma. That’s probably because I’m old, and that’s what I was taught to do back in my one-room schoolhouse days. But it’s not just habit. There are two practical reasons.
For a serial list where each of the items contains many words (including conjunctions), I find that the Oxford comma tells the reader where to pause . For example,
Yesterday, I squared a circle, trisected an angle, found a one-line proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, and conjectured and verified three new theorems.
But the Oxford comma is especially useful for lists of exactly three items; it makes it clear that the second and third items are actually part of a list, not just modifiers of the first item. An unintended consequence of not using the Oxford comma is shown below:
It turns out that math can be useful when thinking about grammar. During a recent presentation, I showed how proportional reasoning can be used to identify past participles: